When “Law & Order” ended its 20-year run in 2010, it had already cemented its place as one of the longest-running television dramas in history. Its success was a testament to the enduring popularity of a good mystery.
Mining that same well of a demand for whodunnits, a roughly one-year-old Los Angeles-based startup called Solve has raised $20 million in financing to update the genre for a new generation of media consumers.
Its eponymously titled social media programming, available on Instagram and Snap, has managed to nab roughly 30 million interactions over the year-and-a-half that it distributed its productions. Now the company is launching a true crime podcast on the iHeartMedia and Apple platforms to tap into another potentially high-growth market.
Solve began as a series developed within the mobile-focused entertainment studio, Vertical Networks. Helmed by Tom Wright and financed by Elisabeth Murdoch (through her Freelands Ventures fund, which Wright also managed) and Snap, the company was one of the early entrants to raise cash as a production studio for mobile content. But it was far from the only studio to see money in mobile-first entertainment. All of the major internet-age media companies had their own mobile strategies.
Murdoch eventually replaced Wright (so that he could work on spinning up Solve as an independent entity) and sold Vertical Networks two months ago to the online media startup, Whistle, for an undisclosed amount.
“I spent a year looking deep, deep, deep into audience behavioral data on Snap and Facebook,” Wright says. “The DNA of what I thought [audience] sensibilities was leading towards was this format.”
As Vertical Networks was winding down, Solve was spinning up with help from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Upfront Ventures and Advancit Capital.
“We’ve seen incredibly popular crime mystery shows across media, including podcasts like Serial and Dirty John, TV shows like Making a Murderer and Law & Order, and movies like The Usual Suspects and Gone Girl,” said Jeremy Liew, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a statement. “Games have attained a first class status as media but we’ve yet to see a crime mystery format game achieve the same success, and Solve is going to right that wrong.”
The gamification element that’s made Solve’s episodes resonate with mobile audiences on social platforms will be a small part of the initial series, says Wright, with plans to expand the interactive elements going forward.
Produced in partnership with SALT audio, whose previous work includes “Blackout” and “Carrier” and iHeartMedia, the 10-episode series uses the same “ripped from the headlines” storytelling for its 30-minute broadcasts and offers listeners clues in leaked audio files, voicemails, courtroom testimony and other evidence to try to guess the killer.
For now, Solve is content to be a studio producing ad-supported media for platforms like Apple, Snap, Facebook, iHeartMedia and other distributors, according to Wright. It’s a different path than studios like Quibi, which is creating its own streaming service dedicated to mobile storytelling and backed by many of the major Hollywood studios.
The current pace of production means that Solve is making 18 original episodes per month. For the 40-year-old Wright, Solve represents a fourth foray into the world of startups. And while he’s not a fan of the crime or mystery genre himself, Wright said that the data around engagement was too compelling to not try to launch a business around it.
“The Internet has changed how we interact with the world from taxis to news to shopping. We believe that Solve can fundamentally change how we interact with narrative video storytelling,” said Mark Suster, managing partner, Upfront Ventures, in a statement. “When we heard Tom’s vision for short-form video that you not only watch but also must ‘solve‘, we knew that it had enormous potential.”